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How can I beat a gymnastics mental block?

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A Gymnastics photo of a gymnast training on balance beam
© Brian McEntire
Question: How can I beat a gymnastics mental block?
I'm scared of a gymnastics skill that I used to be able to do. Now I can't get myself to go for it. What can I do?
Answer: Many gymnasts say that mental blocks are one of the worst parts of gymnastics. Sometimes they happen for no obvious reason, and usually you can complete the skill without problem, if you could just get yourself to do it.

Here, some tips from gymnasts and coaches for getting past the fear. Some will probably work better than others for you, so keep trying until you find the techniques that work best for your brain.
  • Talk to your coach. Almost every gymnast has a mental block during her career, so your coach has most likely seen this happen many other times. Explain to her that you're trying your hardest and want to figure out a plan to get comfortable with the skill again. The two of you should be able to come up with a game plan together.

  • Visualize. Close your eyes and pretend you're doing the skill. The more detail you can imagine, the better. Sometimes, you'll be so scared of the skill that even visualizing it gets your heart racing. Keep at it, and spend the most time on any part of the skill that really scares you. So, if letting go on your flyaway frightens you the most, keep doing the "let go" part over and over again in your head.

  • Take a step back. Find a progression of the skill that you can still do. In our flyaway example, maybe you are too scared to do it alone, but you'll go for it with a spot or into the pit. Or you are terrified to do it from a giant, but you can do it from tap swings. Go back as far as you need to, and do that variation of the skill over and over again. Even if it feels like you shouldn't have to take this step back, doing the progression will help you far more than freezing up every time you try to do the original skill.

  • Break it down. Try to focus on only one thing during the skill. Some coaches argue that it doesn't even matter what, but the key is to get your mind to turn off. Again, in our flyaway example, your "one thing" could be your tap. Do your best to clear your mind, and as you get ready to go, think only of doing a good solid tap. You've probably done a million tap swings, so just do one more. Then let your body take care of the rest. Some gymnasts swear by this, while others have trouble with this one.

  • Mentally choreograph the skill. This is similar in some ways to breaking it down, but instead, you give several words or phrases to parts of the skill. The idea is to re-focus your mind on good technique instead of fear. Mental choreography for the flyaway could be: "Strong tap, toes up, spot the landing." You can also add in positive words to your mental choreography, such as, "Strong tap, great flyaway, I can do this." Work with your coach to develop a mental choreography for the skill that's giving you trouble. She will best know what you should be thinking about.

  • Watch video. If you have tape of yourself doing the skill, watch it. You're trying to convince your brain that you can do it, so watching it over and over again can help. Some gymnasts have found this got them past their block, while others haven't had luck with it.

  • Keep at it. Stay patient with yourself. You can and will get the skill back, it's just a matter of figuring out how to get your mind on track. Keep working on different methods, and you'll get there. Don't give up!
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